Motherlife interview #3
All mothers in this interview series are anonymous and so have been given nature names as their super heroine pseudonym. The nature names have been chosen from the list of nature words that have been deleted from a well known children’s dictionary.
Fern, age 67, January 12th 2019.
I was 26 when I had my daughter. At the time I was working as a secondary school teacher years 8-10.
My children’s ages are 40 and 37, also three grandchildren ages 7, 4, 3 and one on the way.
How was your pregnancy with your first?
I was pretty excited. I did get some morning sickness at about six weeks. My husband used to give me orange juice in the morning and I’d drink it and then go straight outside and vomit it up, I did that for a few weeks!
The pregnancy was pretty reasonable, I hardly looked pregnant at all that first time, maybe because the stomach muscles were pretty good and I was pretty slim.
I was also wondering what were your activity levels in terms of exercise that you did before you were pregnant and when you were pregnant?
I don’t remember doing much to be perfectly honest. I don’t think I did. I was working full time and we were renovating our house. I don’t think we were into much exercise back then. We must have done a bit because after the birth of my son I started to do stomach exercises. And my daughter has said to me since I shouldn’t have been doing them and that’s why I got stress incontinence. But I didn’t do them after my first baby because my stomach was so small. I went down really fast. I hardly looked like I was pregnant after I walked out of the hospital. I thought I was very lucky.
And so, how was the birth?
I was very scared before hand. And I was overdue. She was due on May the 1st and was born on May 13th. She was induced and the doctor was worried that my placenta might be inadequate.
I was put in for an induction in the hospital. I woke up in the middle of the night. They gave me sleeping tablets, so I took Mogadon as I was going to be induced the next morning. At about 3.30 or 4 o’clock in the morning I woke up and thought I needed to go to the toilet. So I’m wandering down the hallway in the hospital and I’m looking for a toilet and the nurse came up to me and she said ‘what are you doing?’ And I said ‘I’m going to the toilet’ and she said ‘how long have you wanted to go to the toilet?’ And I said ‘I just woke up and I wanted to go to the toilet’ and she said ‘well here’s the toilet’, so I went to the toilet. And she said ‘do you still want to go to the toilet?’ And I said ‘yes I think I do still want to go to the toilet’ and she said ‘you need to come back to bed’. And she said again ‘how long have you been wanting to go to the toilet?’ And I thought she was very silly and I said ‘oh I don’t know!’ And she said ‘I think you might be in labour’ and the next thing she got out a wheelchair. And I said, ‘what do I need that for?’ She said well you have to have a wheelchair.
That’s one thing I didn’t like about hospital, as soon as you walked in they treated you like a sick person and you were in a wheelchair.
They took me up to the first room and I started to get these contractions and I remember apologising like mad because I’d wet the bed. I said ‘I am so sorry, I told you I needed to go to the toilet!’ And they said, ‘no, no, no this is quite normal, your waters have broken, this is fine.’
And so then they put me on a stretcher and took me straight to the delivery room. And I was panicking because my husband said he’d be there. And I kept asking ‘where’s the doctor and where’s my husband’. The next thing my husband was there all dressed up in a white gown and white cap and he had a stethoscope and his lanyard with his timer on because he was going to time the contractions! And the doctor still hadn’t arrived and I could hear this screaming from the other room and I said ‘what’s all that?’ and my husband said ‘apparently it’s a woman in the next room not handling things very well’. And he kept talking into my ear so I couldn’t hear her. But it was very quick the labour. I think It was 4.45am in the morning she was born and I think I’d woken up about 3.30am. I think the scariest thing was this doctor coming at me with a scalpel, because he gave me an episiotomy. And I was very scared about that.
Did he ask you?
No, he was an older doctor, it was just standard I think. When the contractions got really bad I asked for pethidine as one of my friends was a doctor and he said ask for pethidine if it’s really bad. They didn’t give it to me straight away. But they gave it to me not really realising I was so dilated. I must have dilated when I was asleep because I was on mogadon.
Is that a strong sleeping tablet?
I think so. I think I was probably nearly comatose almost, until it really started to wake me up. So they gave me pethidine really late and so my daughter was really still and she failed her first test. I think she got 2 out of 10 of some test they do.
Because she was affected by the pethidine?
Yes. And I don’t remember the pethidine even helping me although it must have. Because I do remember my sister saying that the worst part was during the delivery whereas I think the worst part was the contractions. I don’t remember feeling the delivery very much. Maybe I didn’t even feel the episiotomy because I’d had the pethidine so late. So I didn’t feel much at all.
I remember her being born but being really still. Then I was panicky because I’d heard all these stories about babies getting mixed up and they’d wrapped her up and they said they were taking her to the ward.
Did you get to see her straight away?
Oh yes I held her and she was very still and we had photos and then they took her away and I said to my husband, ‘follow that baby, make sure we get the right baby!’
Apart from your husband did you know anyone that was there in the birthing room with you?
No. Oh, apart from the doctor.
And was he there for the labour?
He came for the delivery.
And how long were you in the hospital for?
I was there for about a week because I retained a bit of the placenta. I had really good nursing there. I had my daughter with me in the room. The nurse kept coming in and taking my blood pressure and she got really concerned and said she was going to ring the doctor. I said why and she said ‘your temperature is too high’. I went under an anaesthetic. I think they told me it was like an epidural, just a partial one, but I was out of it, I don’t remember anything and apparently the placenta was manually removed.
So how was it after you brought the baby home?
It was a complete shock to the system. I like my sleep and suddenly I was getting up every 3 – 4 hours. I had a little denim papoose sleeping bag thing so the first night we put her in our room just near the door. But my husband couldn’t stand all the suckling noises she made.
So the first night she was in the room and the second night she was in the hallway and eventually she was in her room. But my husband was really good. Every time she woke up he’d get up and go and get her and bring her to me so I’d feed her in bed. To begin with I obeyed all the rules and I’d feed her on both sides and then change her nappy and then I thought, ‘no shes being woken up when I change the nappy. So in the end I’d feed her and before giving her the other breast I’d then change her nappy and the feed the other side and she’d fall asleep and I’d tip toe in and put her in her little cot thing.
So she slept quite well?
I think we were a little bit proud of the fact we thought we were good parents. We weren’t very humble! We thought we were doing things better than everybody else because they all seemed to have a few problems. But we didn’t seem to have any because she was a good sleeper. And she was a pretty well behaved baby. But then I started to get exhausted. I always remember this other girl saying to me ‘at the 12 week mark everything will be over and you’ll just think this is the most wonderful experience’. And I did think it was a wonderful and miraculous experience having a baby. I remember that. I remember that initial high. But when I got home I went into lows. I certainly went into lows. And can I remember going round to see my mum who was really sick and I remember feeling very foggy almost. Not quite with it. And I wonder whether maybe a bit more nutrition would have helped. I think I was always in a bit of a haze. And I was a little bit depressed. I got really skinny. I’d lost all this weight around here (pats her belly) from the pregnancy and then I started to eat all the biscuits!
And this was about three months?
I think almost straight away. I was starting to feel foggy.
Ok, so you got ‘brain fog’?
Yes I think so. And so I started to put on weight then because I think I was mildly depressed. I don’t think I was chronically depressed. I wouldn’t have had a clue what it was. But I was certainly hormonal and probably not eating right maybe not enough nutrition my hormones were probably out of balance and so I started to eat. And I can remember being in a bit of a haze.
And how long do you think that lasted, being in a haze?
I don’t know. I had a lot of eye contact problems. I’d always had them even as a kid in certain situations. So it got worse.
So you couldn’t look people in the eye?
Often. Some people you get close and you’d be talking and I couldn’t connect. And I’d had those problems before. I wasn’t connecting very well with a lot of people. At about seven months I used to see a counsellor every week. He used to do transactional analysis. In that group It was meant to be a safe place but I didn’t know any of the other people. Eventually I opened up about this eye contact thing and he gave me this visualisation about how to see it as a ‘thing’. He said ‘close your eyes and take the eye contact issue and walk into the other room and put it into a filing cabinet and file it away.’
And did it help?
It did help. But it didn’t get rid of it completely. But it certainly did help.
Were the other people in the group all postpartum women?
No they were all random blokes and all sorts of women.
Sounds like you were quite brave to go to it. Did you take you daughter with you?
No. I’d put her to sleep and then go. Because by then she was sleeping through the night most of the night. She was sleeping through the night at about five or six weeks. She was amazing actually. She did wake up later on, when she started to crawl which is probably separation or something, I don’t know.
And so when you brought your daughter home from the hospital did your husband have time off work?
Yeah a little bit, I don’t think much, maybe a couple of weeks at most. Maybe a week.
What was your support network when you had your first baby?
I had some friends with babies. I remember one of them offered to look after both my children one day because I was having such a bad time. So there were some networks there.
And was your mum supportive or helpful?
No she was sick. In fact she wasn’t really there at all. I think she would have liked to have been there. But she wasn’t there. She wasn’t well enough to look after the kids.
So what were your expectations of motherhood?
I thought I’d be the most wonderful mother out. I was naive and young and immature and I thought I’d be really good at it. We were going to make a really happy family and life was going to be beautiful and all rosy.
The reality was a little different. It was very exhausting I read things like ‘how to raise a brighter child’. Almost everyday I’d walk around with my daughter and show her the curtains and read her books when she was three weeks old. I’d take her into the garden to touch the flowers. I’d do all those sorts of things every day. I’d stimulate her in every possible way I could because I was absolutely obsessed about doing that. I felt that children needed to be bright to achieve, to have a happy life. I’m not sure I believe all that now. But back then I’d seen children failing at school and they were all very sad. So I wanted to give my children the best chance possible so I did what I thought was best for my child.
How did you feel as a mother of a newborn.
I felt like I had lost my sex appeal. I remember going to see some friends and the male friend had always flirted with me and I went down there with a baby and I thought he wouldn’t like me any more because I’d had a baby. I thought ‘I don’t look good, I’ve lost all my appeal.’ I was a child, at 26! It’s almost like describing a 13 year old. I don’t know whether I was emotionally immature. I guess I was. I just look back on it now and think how silly, I feel sorry for that little girl.
Can you tell me, what was your greatest fear about being the mother of a newborn or of young children?
Getting it right. I was into being perfect. I had to get it right and do a good job.
And did you have a particular vision of what getting it right looked like or felt like?
I think it was all about giving her the best chance. I was worried about her appearance too. I loved her to bits and I remember one time people were coming to visit and I couldn’t find her hair brush, you know those little tiny soft baby brushes, and she had no hair basically. And I said to my husband ‘they can’t come, I can’t do her hair, it’s all sticking to her head’.
So I was all about having a beautiful baby.
So can you tell me how did your body feel after you gave birth and in that first postpartum experience?
I think I was good, I felt really proud, see I was into physical appearance. I think I felt really proud that I just didn’t look like I’d been pregnant. I didn’t like the fact that I had to wear open shirts. And I can remember sometimes forgetting and putting on a pretty dress and suddenly realising I couldn’t breastfeed.
I remember going to visit a friend and going to a party and feeling really pretty and really proud of myself and then I realised I couldn’t feed and I had to go into a room and take my whole dress off.
I can remember being really obsessed with cleanliness. The doctor said I probably gave my daughter thrush because everytime I changed the nappy I’d get a flannel and wash her bottom. Obsessively. And the doctor said ‘no you have to leave a bit of urine there for a bit of good bacteria.’
I was obsessed with cleanliness. I was obsessed with getting everything right and doing it properly. I worry that I gave that to my daughter, the need to get everything right. Because when she may appear to be having things going wrong or failing she doesn’t ask for help. She’s so highly intelligent but maybe in some ways I blame myself that’s she’s not so emotionally intelligent sometimes.
I so want to be there for her but she shuts you out a bit. And I think she tries to get everything right like she’s wonder woman. I could never do what she does, so I worry about her.
So do you feel like you asked for help when you were younger?
I did. I think I did. I asked my sister all the time.
And do you feel like you got the help you needed?
Well I think sometimes my sister gave me the wrong help but that was her belief system so I didn’t blame her for it. But I felt sometimes I probably shouldn’t have been so devoted to what she said. She said you never let a baby cry. And I’ve watched my son and he just seems to be so easy and he says ‘well mum that’s how babies communicate’. And I said ‘I get so panicked when the baby’s crying.’ Rush rush rush rush! I didn’t want my daughter to whimper at all. So I’d be in there straight away. And my son said ‘Relax!’.
When my daughter first asked me to look after my grandson I was really, really tense and panicked. It was my experience with my son that got me like that because he was a very bad sleeper. So I was really scared about putting him to sleep. I have learned how to do that now, probably from my children. My daughter gave me instructions because she was into self soothing and so was my son and daughter in law. And I didn’t know the concept. I probably did it in a way because in the end I used to give them a bottle and they’d obviously soothe themselves. But in the end that became a problem because they’d drink so much to put themselves to sleep that then they’d wee and wake themselves up.
My daughter had a dummy but my son didn’t. I didn’t consciously think about that stuff. About self soothing. I wasn’t aware of anything really to do with babies. My mother used to say ‘put them outside underneath the tree’. So I used to do that a bit. She said they look at the trees and that’s good for them. I’d do things that my mother told me. She supported the idea of don’t let the baby cry because she said she used to put my sister down the back of the yard and let her scream because that’s what the doctor said. And she said she was driven to absolutely terrible feelings about that so she said with me she didn’t do that. She said I was the easier baby. But I don’t know, I was her second baby. But then I had an easier time with my first than my second.
So is there anything that would have helped you adjust to motherhood that you would have liked?
I think information. And somebody to come in. It would have been wonderful to have had a doula. Although we probably couldn’t have afforded it. But to actually have somebody come in and sit down with you once a week or something and just give you some information on those things. I don’t know whether you agree with self soothing, but just that babies need to learn to put themselves to sleep. My sister said you don’t let them cry because then they feel alone and have separation issues, so I never let my daughter cry. But with my son it didn’t work that way because he’d just want more cuddles whereas my daughter would just go to sleep. I used to try and put him to sleep on the breast. My daughter and daughter in law say ‘no, you don’t do that.’ But I’d try to get him to fall asleep on the breast, and then put him to bed. But of course as soon as he found himself in the bed he’d roll over and get up and shake the cot and scream and I’d be in tears in the hallway. He was waking up every 15, 20 minutes. And obviously I did need to do something like controlled crying or something.
So he woke up every 15 minutes in the night?
And did he sleep much during the day?
I don’t remember him sleeping at all, he must have.
So it sounds like you got very, very tired?
Oh yes I got really, really tired. And I don’t cope very well now being tired let alone back then. I was younger but I still don’t think I coped very well.
I used to rush to sleep. I used to put them to sleep and go rush to bed to go to sleep. And of course I’d be in this deep sleep and be woken up again and go ‘oh no! I’ve got to get up again’. It was like a nightmare. ‘Ugh. I’ve got to get up again’.
I had a girl around the corner who looked after my youngest because I had to get out of the whole thing. I went back to work to escape.
So did you go back to work after your first was born or just after you’d had both?
I did. I went back to work. And that was traumatic too. I tried all these different childcares. And I met this friend who was a bit of support, and a much more easy going mother than me, much more emotionally intelligent. She gave me some guidelines but then she moved to Sydney and I lost her and I felt very bereft for years. But she was a great support.
And why did you find her so supportive?
Oh because she was an occupational therapist and she just was emotionally intelligent to me I think and she was the sort stuff I needed. She befriended me, I was very shy. I was working at a place for troubled kids and she was the occupational therapist there and she said ‘lets catch up’ a few times. And eventually I went and saw her and she had a very messy house and I must admit I struggled to keep my house tidy at all and I’d look around her place and think how does she live like that? And gradually she wore me down and I just really loved her. I thought she was just wonderful and she was just so helpful to me.
So you didn’t feel like you were getting support from your sister or parents?
Well I did. I think my sister tried. But she had her group of friends. She was much more social than us. She’d have all these big parties. I would come to them. I couldn’t think about coping with making parties. I used to think she was a great cook. and I couldn’t do all that. My husband used to say that I put myself down but I said ‘I can’t even think. I don’t know how she does all that how does she do all that big christmas dinner how does she do all those things’. She was into reading all these amazing cookbooks and I’d go buy them and think oh, too complicated for me. I’m not organised enough for that. So I used to feel a little inadequate to say the least. So I used to accept her invitations rather than do too much ourselves.
I find it really interesting that in traditional cultures the female relatives sort of swarm around the new mother to support her, nourish her, nurture her. And so hearing you talk about your experience makes me wonder where is the female support?
None. There was none.
How did you go breastfeeding?
My daughter was really easy. In hospital they used to massage me a lot and I used the lanolin on my nipples. I was in hospital for a week so they helped me with breastfeeding. I think I got a bit sore but it seemed to subside.
With my son I remember it was quite painful with a let down as the milk rushed in. I fed them both for virtually right on 12 months. With my son I went back to work at about nine or ten months because I couldn’t stand it anymore. I used to leave him at this creche and it was horrible because he used to scream and claw at me and that was horrible. But I’d go and do relief teaching and I remember thinking I was missing something because he used to be perpetually on my hip. I remember feeling almost like this freedom like its so amazing but also where is this child on my hip? A really weird feeling. But I remember feeling like I just needed to get away. And I’d come home and I’d see him crying and wonder what’s wrong? And then I’d realise I hadn’t fed him. I’d forget. I started to forget to (breast) feed him. And so I stopped (breast) feeding about 12 months. I started to introduce a bottle. Which none of my kids have done. But I used to give them 50/50 apple juice and water. Which I thought was better than Ribena!
So you found going back to work a relief?
Yes. To get away.
And how much did you work?
I don’t think much to start with. I think I just did relief teaching and then I got a part time job so I got a nanny. I think she might have trained my son to sleep. I don’t think I made much money. I probably just earnt the money to pay for her so I could get away. Because when he was waking up all the time at his worst, we drugged him in the end. We went to the pediatrician and he recommended this Valurgen and we used to give it to him at night.
So did you give that to him for a long period of time?
For about two or three months until we realised that it was actually having the reverse and it was hyping him up.
I hated it. I felt very isolated and alone looking after a baby all day. I found it really boring. Even now if I’m looking after the grandchildren I find I get really bored. I don’t like it much. I love them. And I don’t mind having them for a couple of hours but the kids want me to have them all day and if I’m there by myself with them all day I’m bored to tears. I really am. And it reminds me of how I used to feel and it went on for years. Day after day. Having to build sand castles and do drawings and do lego and stuff. And I’m thinking ‘oh let me out of here, let me out of here I’m going nuts’. I had that feeling.
But the pediatrician that we went to was terrible to tell us just to drug him. He should have taught me how to put the child to sleep. Some sort of controlled crying or something.
Did you talk about this sort of stuff with your friends?
I think a lot of them had it all under control. Like super mums. One of my friends had two kids and was pregnant with her third and said she’d come over with her kids to give me a few hours rest so I went out and she had my two and her two and when I got back she said ‘I can’t cope’, and I asked ‘why not?’ and she said ‘your son just won’t sleep’. She said ‘he’s just screaming all the time and I can’t do it again’. Obviously by the end the sleeping was chronic. It was like a chronic state.
I think one thing the doctor did say is that a breastfed male baby is worse than a breastfed female baby. Because we said we didn’t have these problems with our daughter. He said to get your husband to go in and give him the bottle of apple juice or water or whatever.
And did your husband go in?
He did a bit, but he wasn’t as good with our son because he was so bad at sleeping and he lost interest because he wanted his sleep. He was better with our daughter because she was the first child and a novelty.
Well it does sound like you felt a bit alone.
Oh yes, very much so. I tried. I asked for help, my daughter works things out for herself.
So postpartum is often considered six weeks, so how long after giving birth did you until you felt comfortable in your new role as a mother.
Maybe two years or two and a half years.
And what about in your body?
Well I think I started to put on weight which I didn’t like. But I think my body felt pretty good pretty early, I don’t think my body was too bad.
But you mentioned some stress incontinence?
Oh yes I’ve had that for years. It’s pretty good now.
Did that start after the second birth?
No, after my first. Because I remember going to a fitness class and the teacher wanted us to run and I said to my friend ‘I’m just wetting my pants’ and she said ‘ yes me too’.
So did you stop running?
No I kept going and used to wear a pad. Then I did calisthenics and things and became a trainer. So when I had my son I was doing more exercise. I just used to wear a pad all the time.
So were you ever concerned about the leaking?
Oh yeah, really concerned. I’d laugh and I’d wee.
So did you talk to the doctor about it?
Oh no! No, no! I remember talking about it with a friend and she said ‘me too’.
But there wasn’t even any point where you thought you’d go and get some help from a women’s health physio?
Well my friend was a women’s health physio but I wasn’t going to go to her. I just thought, I’ll keep contracting but of course I wasn’t doing that every day.
Did you have and help or support in terms of rehabilitating your body after giving birth.
No. I don’t think so, no.
So what have been the biggest challenges in becoming a mother?
I think the isolation, and not knowing what to do. I think the feeding even. We used to have mothers and babies where I’d have to get dressed and keep the ten o’clock appointment and you’d go and she’d say you can introduce solids now. You could go to them once per week, but it was a real effort to get there. Because you had to get dressed and get the baby ready and go up there.
So as a new mother how did you nurture yourself?
Well I don’t think I did. I can remember being so physically exhausted. Everything was so heavy. It was such a big rigmarole just to go somewhere. I was obsessed that someone might steal the baby. I think I isolated myself in a way because I was just so nervy. A friend invited me over and said I could put my daughter in the room with her child and I said no I can’t do that, I have to have her right next to me. I think they thought I was weird. I was obsessed. I was so nervous and worried and uptight in case she cried. I was so attached. I’d get very traumatised when I dropped her off at my dads. When I dropped my son off at daycare off he’d be screaming and nearly draw blood. Then when I went to look over the fence there, he’d be playing, and I’d be upset and crying. There was a lot of trauma around leaving my daughter to start with. That’s why I tried different places. Trying to get the right place. I didn’t have a lot of confidence at all.
We did get some support, mum did pay for the towelling nappies for about six months, which was really good of them. But I did go through about 70 nappies in a week.
What about your mother in law was she supportive at all?
No, she’d brought her children up she didn’t want to look after children. And when she used to come around I felt like there was a lot of implied criticism. Like she’d tell me that the kitchen cupboards were dirty and she’d start busying herself in the kitchen cleaning everything up, and then she’d be out pulling in the clothes off the line. Which was appearing to help but I saw it as criticism that I hadn’t done it.
So how do you nurture yourself now?
Well I go to yoga. I read self help books. I have a group of people that come once a month and we talk about personal growth and spiritual type things. I do courses that interest me. Therapy. I get really scared in the solar plexus sometimes and so I do yoga nidra. I’ve been wondering for a while, where am I going to get any joy in my life? Where is my bliss? And I’ve realised I love learning and reading and researching. I’m always looking at the way to explain things to people. I want to benefit people.
Thank you so much Fern for your time, honesty, and thoughtful reflections on your experience of motherhood.